By Jon Sauber | @JonSauber
Sports Capital Journalism Program
ATLANTA – With his Alabama Crimson Tide trailing, 13-0, at halftime of the College Football Playoff National Championship and the Georgia Bulldogs in position to take control of the game, many successful college coaches would not have had the conviction to make the decision that Alabama’s Nick Saban reached.
Sophomore Jalen Hurts, the quarterback who had very nearly led the Tide to a victory over Clemson in the title game a year ago, was struggling.
Alabama was outgained, 223 yards to 94 in the half. Hurts had rushed for 47 of his team’s 73 yards on the ground. But he had completed just 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards for an offense that was beginning to appear one-dimensional and ineffective.
The alternative was gifted but inexperienced Tua Tagovailoa, who was enrolling at Alabama a year ago this month and had completed 35 passes this season, seven against Mercer.
Saban’s commitment to a promising but relatively untested freshman, with his team rapidly approaching a crisis point, led to one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of a program that preserves its greatest moments in majestic-looking paintings.
The latest moment, Tagovailoa’s all-or-nothing 41-yard pass to freshman DeVonta Smith in the first overtime in College Football Playoff history, gave the Tide a shocking 26-23 victory just when the Bulldog fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium were ready to celebrate.
Two years after Saban’s bold decision to try an onside kick against Clemson with his defense struggling on another championship night, the bold move to go with the freshman made the calculated risk his signature.
Tagovailoa completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns. The change resulted in significant difference in the game plan, with the Crimson Tide throwing the ball only eight times with Hurts in the game but attempting three times as many passes with Tagovailoa. Saban’s buttoned-down demeanor does not create the image of a gunslinger. His careful, measured responses in press conferences, with the occasional thin smile punctuating his dry sense of humor, would appear to make him the anti-Mike Leach.
But in an industry that more than ever leaves high-profile coaches open to the instantaneous second guess in real time, Saban’s willingness to operate unconventionally was based upon a faith in his organization’s personnel.
“I think that, to a large degree, I trust players,” Saban said after the game. “Players that do things the right way, players who prepare the right way, practice the right way. They’re dependable.”
Saban addressed the decision-making balance between the recognition that Hurts had been an essential component and the realization that another approach was necessary.
“I think you do show your appreciation for [Hurts’ achievements],” Saban said, “One of the first things that I said to Jalen was, ‘We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. You put us in a position by the plays that you made and the way you played all year long.’”
This wasn’t the first time Saban has made a quarterback switch in a bowl game that ignited a comeback. Saban remembered that his Louisiana State Tigers, trailing by 14-3 in the Peach Bowl to Georgia Tech at the end of the 2000 season, needed a change at halftime that sparked a comeback.
“I just went in at halftime and said Rohan Davey, ‘You need to go play, because we need a spark on offense and we need something to change,’” Saban said. Davey, who replaced Josh Booty, threw three touchdown passes in the second half of a 28-14 victory.”
Saban said it wasn’t just the practical adjustment of swapping his quarterbacks, but also the mental aspect.
“Sometimes just a little change of style, a little spark sort of ignites everyone, and I think that happened,” he said, “Tua gets a lot of credit for that, but I think his teammates’ response to him was equally important.”
More than once in the days leading up to the game, Saban had emphasized that success is momentary. His philosophy was confirmed after Bama’s sleepless night, when the coach addressed the initial question about a quarterback controversy.
“I think we haven’t really made a decision about that,” Saban said. “I don’t think it’s imperative that we make one right now. We’ve got two fine young men who really respect each other and have worked to help each other all year long.”
As for Tagovailoa, he said he chose not to sleep after leading the Alabama comeback. “I got no sleep at all last night,” Tagovailoa said, “I couldn’t sleep because, if I slept, I would have never woke up to come to this [press conference].”
Those decisions would be the business of another day. For now, Saban’s satisfaction could be traced to the end of a cycle that had begun with a last-second defeat on the same stage one year before.
“When we lost last year on the last play of the game, we said, ‘Don’t waste a failing,’” Saban said. “That’s the lesson we all wanted to learn. I think the resiliency this team has shown all year long certainly proves that they sort of learned something from that.”